Like a stone tossed into a lake, Santa Cruz Shakespeare’s version of David Ives’ play “Venus in Fur” has concentric ripples that expand into ethereal nothingness. Or do they?
Not to worry whether you “see,” let alone understand, all of them because this intense production — with two lollapalooza actors who wring every ounce of meaning from each word they utter — is spellbinding and awe-inspiring.
The opening seems pedestrian enough: Thomas is talking on the phone with his fiancé, telling her his frustrations after auditioning 35 women “who can’t even pronounce degradation” for the lead in a play he has adapted and will direct.
But nothing prepares the audience for the mind-blowing moment when Vanda (Maria Gabriela Rosado Gonzalez) bursts on stage tossing raindrops — and obscenities — because she’s half an hour late from her scheduled audition appointment with Thomas.
Vanda appears to be something of a hot mess, wide-eyed, laughing uproariously at times — usually at the wrong times — and galloping around the stage in a losing effort to appear poised and eager to audition.
All that changes the moment Thomas grudgingly lets her read for the role — he doesn’t so much agree to as it is that Vanda plows ahead with or without his OK. She then pulls out of her bag a feminine white floor-length skirt and blouse that she says she bought in a thrift shop for $10, which Thomas acknowledges is exactly the kind of circa-1870s outfit the woman would wear in his play.
The less said about the rest of this play, the better because its plot simply has to open up gradually like the petals of a flower.
Both Gonzalez and Ibsen more or less play three roles each, though Gonzalez’ character changes are much more obvious and jarring. Her various speech patterns and accents are astounding as she switches in and out of her characters with alacrity. She is, in two words, beyond compare.
Ives’ play, set in modern-day New York City, was only a moderate hit when it opened on Broadway in 2011. Yet it obviously achieved critical success, with nominations for two 2012 Tony Awards and winning one for the lead actress.
It’s somewhat ironic that so many of the adjectives that could be used to describe Vanda begin with a curvy “s:” sexy, sultry, seductive, sensual, sassy, subjugation, maybe even sadistic. Like his name, many of the Thomas character’s adjectives start with “t:” torn, tormented, tortured, tightly wound, tired. Coincidence?
Perhaps, but Ives — as well as this production’s keen-eyed director Raelle Myrick-Hodges — seem to know exactly what they’re doing and where they’re going with these two even when the audience doesn’t.
Fortunately Ives also knows when tension or frenetic activity need to be interrupted by a deft touch of comedy, and he succeeds at this nicely in “Venus.” Case in point: Thomas asks Vanda, who lives with a “significant other,” what she calls her lovers. Her response: “Assholes!”
The wordplay here is terrific, but it’s best not to pigeonhole “Venus” into any one category. Some see it as a treatise on sadomasochism, others think it’s a tug-of-war between the sexes (at one point Vanda says “I want to see what a woman will be when she’s man’s equal”).
But it’s much, much more than that — and also much less. It’s certainly a way to experience all kinds of sexual fantasies from the safety of your seat, and it’s definitely an opportunity to reconsider gender issues and the power plays that go on between the sexes.
And, as Myrick-Hodges says in her program notes, “A girl’s gotta get a job…and it usually ends up with us having to turn into a damn goddess to be taken seriously.”
“Venus” does get a bit dizzying and repetitive by play’s end, but the mystery behind it all is still skillfully woven and suspenseful.
Just about everything about this production is perfection, most especially Rody Ortega’s cleverly integrated music and sound design (the cacophony of sounds at the very start of the play is mind-blowing) as well as Kent Dorsey’s striking (literally!) lighting both from the outside storm as well as within the confines of the audition room. To experience the complete lighting effects, it’s better to see this play at an evening performance, but matinees will still have some of the impact.
David Morden deserves kudos for serving as voice coach here, and ditto B. Modern’s costumes: the striking red-and-black corset item Vanda wears throughout the show as well as the period coats — a handsome maroon one and a gold-detailed green one worn at times by both actors. Vanda also wears some killer shoes (and boots!). And then there’s fur — lots and lots of fur, but that’s best seen for full effect.
Eric Flatmo’s scenic design (obviously this set has to work for the two Shakespearean plays as well so it has many similarities) is simple, but effective. The gold-and-red period chaise (or “divan“ as Vanda calls it) with sparkly grey fringe is a find.
Though it’s definitely not one to take along the kids, anyone else within 30 miles (or more) of the lovely outdoor amphitheater in DeLaveaga Park would be wise not to miss it.
VENUS IN FUR BY DAVID IVES
Presented by: Santa Cruz Shakespeare
Directed by: Raelle Myrick-Hodges
When: In repertoire with two other productions through Sept. 2
Details: See website for schedule
Where: The Grove at DeLaveaga Park, 501 Upper Park Road, Santa Cruz
Details: 831-460-6399 or www.santacruzshakespeare.org